Lunch lady takes nutrition to new heights

February 26, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
In one Bay Area school district, the days of frozen corn dogs and canned beans are a thing of the past. But the chef credited with transforming the way school kids in Berkeley eat, is now leaving. She plans to introduce her gourmet cafeteria food and her push for healthy eating to children around the country.

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They call her the renegade lunch lady, because in Chef Ann Cooper's cafeteria, the typical cafeteria fare is nowhere to be found.

Frozen corn dogs? Not in Berkeley. But there is chicken marinated in buttermilk and coated with Panko bread crumbs.

"We call it oven fried, but there's no oil, there's no grease. We soak it in buttermilk overnight," says Cooper.

There's no frozen or canned anything for that matter. The renegade lunch lady won't allow it.

"Some chicken tacos. We make the beans here. We make the rice here. It's local brown rice," says Cooper.

That's just part of the menu. There's also pizza on whole wheat crust made from scratch.

Cooper has transformed the way school kids eat in her three and a half years as director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District.

The district's new $8.5 million central kitchen produces all the food for the district's 10,000 students. From it, Cooper stresses organic, buying local, and above all, healthy eating choices.

It's a far cry from the white table cloth restaurants where she cut her culinary chops. But now, this is her mission.

"Literally, I went, 'What, me? A lunch lady? No way," says Cooper. "But I really thought about it and about how much I cared about food and kids, and that really I was given this opportunity to kind of make it up. Like, in a perfect world, what would we feed kids?"

And by making it up, she has made a huge difference.

"I always knew that it could be done, it was just finding innovative ways to do it," says Posey, the district's manager of nutrition services.

Cook Wanda McAfee-Cowart remembers cafeteria food before Cooper arrived.

"Most of the sandwiches or burritos we had were pre-prepared, like microwaveable type foods," says McAfee-Cowart. "So it's been a drastic change."

But Cooper's work in Berkeley is almost done. She's taking her gourmet cafeteria show on the road to transform the way school children around the country eat. Next stop, Boulder, Colorado.

"It really can change all across the country. It needs to have passion and priority," says Cooper.

But it also takes something else. So if you're wondering if all this locally grown and organic food costs more, it does. Berkeley pays about $1.40 per lunch, per child. Most districts pay less than a dollar, and when you're talking about 8,000 lunches every day, that adds up.

Participation in Berkeley's lunch program has skyrocketed since Cooper took over, and the more children that eat, means the more money the federal government reimburses the district. That helps offset some of the food expense.

Even her toughest critics say it's worth it. Especially compared to what they used to eat.

"Nasty beans and stuff like that, it used to be all slimy and stuff, but here it's really good," says student Khaliah Parnell. "I like it."

The courses will continue to be served in Berkeley, even without Cooper. She says they have to.

"This is the first generation in our country's history that will be dying at a younger age than their parents because of this obesity crisis," says Cooper. "We have to change this. We don't have a choice. We really have to make a difference."

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